Observant fans may have noticed something unusual about last Saturday’s Ohio State men’s basketball game – the Buckeyes’ opponent was also based in Ohio. Despite an abundance of in-state opponents, the Buckeyes have regularly scheduled games against small schools from the Sun Best, Big West, and beyond. The Miami Redhawks’ presence on the schedule offered an interesting window to what future non-conference slates could offer under head coach Chris Holtmann. Perhaps he will see the benefits of scheduling more Ohio schools in non-conference play.
There were very few knocks on the Thad Matta regime, but one of them was his unwillingness to schedule other Ohio schools. The Buckeyes tended more towards playing far southern schools such as The Citadel or unheralded ones like UT-Arlington. All major programs pad their tournament resumes with cupcake wins, but the Bucks could benefit from adding a little more intrastate flavor to the menu. The irreplaceable Sports-Reference.com shows OSU’s head-to-head records going back to the 1949-50 season. Here is Ohio State’s record against in-state schools for that period including the most recent matchup:
Ohio State hasn’t played a scheduled game with Akron since 1985. The Bucks and Cincinnati Bearcats have met four times with three of them in the NCAA Tournament. Dayton hasn’t appeared on the schedule since 1988. OSU has only played Xavier twice and both were postseason clashes. The Bucks do not need to schedule only Ohio schools of course, but a little more in-state attention could benefit everyone.
Ask a random sports fan which state is synonymous with college basketball and you’ll likely hear Indiana, North Carolina, or Texas. Those are all astute answers, but one could also argue that Ohio is rife with basketball contenders. Both Xavier and Cincinnati are ranked in the AP Top 25 this week and are usually March Madness regulars. Akron has made four tournament appearances this decade. The Dayton Flyers have appeared in four consecutive postseasons. Even inconsistent schools such as Kent State have had Cinderella runs fairly recently; the Golden Flashes reached the Elite Eight in 2002. The point is that instead of paying for Radford or Northeastern to fly in they could save money and create intrigue by reaching out to some schools down the road. Other Big Ten schools do something similar.
The University of Wisconsin certainly adores football above all other activities, but their basketball program is not to be overlooked. The Kohl Center is a fortress, and the Badgers always make sure there is plenty of Dairy Land matchups on the schedule. There are only four Division I men’s basketball programs in the state: Wisconsin, Marquette, UW-Milwaukee, and UW-Green Bay. The Badgers played all three opponents this season, beating Green Bay and Milwaukee as well as falling to Marquette. The Badgers will play the schools on the road in some years as well. UW is the biggest academic institution in the state, but they embrace the opportunity to play other Wisconsinites in the non-conference slate.
The best model to adding more Ohio schools into the schedule may come from Indiana. Since 2011 Indianapolis has hosted the Crossroads Classic, a late December doubleheader featuring the Butler Bulldogs, Indiana Hoosiers, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and Purdue Boilermakers. IU and PU do not play each other until Big Ten play begins, but the annual matchup gives the Hoosier State a great afternoon of NCAA basketball.
So what would it take to give Ohio a Buckeye Classic? Nationwide Arena would offer a great venue. Late December weekends are wide open for showcases. Ohio’s size would allow every fan base an easy chance to drive to the capital city. Plus, the state’s abundance of schools means a third game would be easy to add.
How about Cleveland State and Ohio at noon, Dayton and Toledo at 2:30 p.m., and Xavier and Ohio State at 5:00 p.m? One ticket for all three games. Who says no?
The downside to this arrangement would be recruiting. Ohio fosters tremendous basketball talent, and schools are often competing with each other for local prospects. Coaches may hesitate to square off in the fear that the game’s loser could be eliminated from a young man’s list. However, recently Ohio players are more and more finding themselves out of state in college. Columbus’ Trey Burke suited up for Michigan. Toledo’s Nigel Hayes played for Wisconsin, and Franklin’s Luke Kennard went to Duke. The list goes on. A showcase could benefit the participating schools by showing how much talent is on the court and inciting the recruits to stay closer to home. Even if the Buckeyes don’t end up with the top talent, keeping it in state (and out of conference) would be better than seeing them in the Big Ten Tournament.
I detailed something similar in discussing the Buckeye football team, and I stand by the idea that playing more Ohio schools stands to benefit everyone. Ohio State, even in a down year, would still be favored over a Youngstown State or Wright State, but a rising program would love the opportunity to play the top dog in the state. Plus, as the University of Dayton proved in 2014, there are no guarantees in college basketball. Perhaps the Chris Holtmann Era will usher in a new rush of intrastate non-conference play. If nothing else, playing and beating the Miami Redhawks was a great start.